Looking every bit a strange creature from the deep, sea urchins are a seafood delicacy.
Not only are sea urchins good for you and breeding in abundance, they’re playing a significant role in our underwater ecosystems.
There are 950 different species of sea urchin found in all parts of the world, of these about 18 are edible.
Edible sea urchins
In Australia there are three main sea urchin species harvested for eating; the purple or short-spined sea urchin (Heliocidaris erythrogramma), the long-spined sea urchin (Centrostephanus rodgersii) and the red sea urchin (H. tuberculata).
Where to forage for sea urchins
The purple sea urchin is a native Australian species found in the coastal waters of southern Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia and Western Australia. They are generally found in shallow waters up to 10 metres in depth, but can be found in water up to 35 metres deep.
The long-spined sea urchin, more commonly known as ‘Centro’, is the most prevalent on the southeastern parts of Australia, stretching from southern Queensland to the coastal waters of Tasmania. The red urchin is found from southern Queensland through to southern New South Wales, and these are best harvested from late spring through to early summer.
At low tide they can be gathered from the rocks by wading in the water. If you take a snorkel and mask, you can dive down and pry them from the rock with a knife. Their spines are very sharp though, so gloves are a must.
You must be extremely careful when doing this. Harvesting should only be done when the sea is calm and extreme caution must taken. Keep an eye out for rogue waves, you don’t want to get washed off or into the rocks – good knowledge of the ocean is essential.
How to open sea urchins
With their long sharp spines, sea urchins are well designed to keep predators out. At first glance, they look impenetrable but with a couple of spoons and a bit of knack, they are pretty easy to get into.
There are tools you can buy for opening sea urchins but unless you plan to harvest and eat them regularly, these aren’t necessary. Accessing the roe is easily achieved with two spoons and a couple of bowls of iced water.
Holding it vertically, place one spoon into the top of the sea urchin, pressing into its shell, placing the other spoon back to back with it. Forming a ‘point’ with the two spoons, apply enough pressure to crack the shell before bringing the two spoon handles together to prise the shell open.
Carefully pull the shell apart using your hands, shake the guts into a bucket and you’ll be left with the yellow-orange roe around the edges of the shell. Get a smaller teaspoon in behind the roe and scoop it out. They are very delicate, so go slowly and carefully and try to get it out in one piece.
Rinse your roe in the first bowl of iced water to wash it before placing it in the second bowl for a minute or two, then transfer to a plate to dry. It’s best to process your harvested urchins the same day and stored on damp paper towel.
Consume the same day for the highest flavour and nutritional value, but roe will last up to four days if stored below three degrees Celsius. Although you can freeze it, doing so affects both the texture and flavour.
How to eat sea urchins
The roe has a soft buttery texture with a fresh ocean flavour, which can be eaten fresh or cooked in dishes. The simplest way is to eat it fresh with a squeeze of lime and soy sauce.
Pretty versatile and packed with umami, the roe can be used to make sushi, added to pasta or made into a butter which freezes well to be used as you need it. A great substitute for regular butter in surf and turf, garlic prawns, mussels or other seafood dishes.
By eating sea urchin, you are not only opening up your palate to new flavours and textures but you’re playing an important role in balancing our coastal ecosystems.
Want to know more about foraging for sea urchins?
In Issue #30 of Pip Magazine, we delve into the world of sea urchins and bring you information on:
- The benefits of foraging for sea urchins
- Their impact on the habitat of other sea creatures
- The nutritional benefits of sea urchins
- How to harvest them
- We also bring you recipes for sea urchin butter, sea urchin with fried rice and sautéed urchin with mushrooms and pesto.
You can access this article online here as part of our digital subscription offering, or subscribe to the print version of Pip Magazine here.